Do we use “catchy” for anything other than “tunes”?
Not often. “Catchy” used to have a wider meaning, for anything that caught or stuck in the mind. Songs, sure, but also regular prose words, like all those clever quotes that get misattributed to Oscar Wilde. Or even tricky questions, since they caught you up mentally. But these days it’s mostly used to describe that friggin Kit Kat jingle.
If we had a Music Nerd, we could ask them how companies put together about six notes and get them to never, ever, ever leave your head, now couldn’t we?
DEAR MUSIC PEOPLE: call me
“Catchy” is far from the only word to undergo such shrinkage of meaning. Take “inclement.” It means “not gentle,” the opposite of “clement,” and both of these used to describe all sorts of things, especially mild-mannered people. That’s where names like Clementine come from. But these days “inclement” is down to exactly one use, “inclement weather,” and “clement” doesn’t even get that.*
This shrinking of scope over time is called semantic narrowing. Semantics is the linguistic study of meaning, and narrowing is meaning fewer things now than it did before. “Girl” used to mean any young person; it narrowed to only young females around the 15th century.
Of course, whatever we’re used to feels natural to us. If you said “What have I got in my pocket?” and Gollum replied “That’s a catchy question, precious,” it would be weird.** Your gut would be against it. But in the past, that was exactly as natural as a catchy tune is now.
The opposite of semantic narrowing is semantic broadening – when a word starts out with a restricted meaning, then grows into further senses. “Dog” used to refer to one breed of dog, but it widened out into the overall species term. Sometimes narrowing and broadening work in tandem: see, “hound” used to be the species term, but as “dog” grew, “hound” shrank down to a single breed. They’re chasing each other’s tails.
Want another? “Flesh” used to mean “meat”; “meat” was “food”; and “food” was “fodder” (like for animals). “Flesh” and “meat” narrowed and “food” broadened to get to our current state of affairs. These and other semantic tweaks are why puzzling out Shakespeare’s ridiculous puns can net you an MA in English.
Brand names are particularly prone to broadening, and it’s a mixed blessing for the companies. Say you’re the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, and you make Kleenex tissues. You want people to know your product’s name. You want to be what comes to mind when people think of wiping their snotty noses. But you don’t want to be so well-known that people use “kleenex” to refer to any old tissues, because you want them to spend money on your specific brand. This is why the boxes say Kleenex® Brand Tissue – trying to remind folks that every kleenex is not a Kleenex®.
When companies out-popular themselves and their brand names start being used to refer to any brand’s version of that thing, it’s called genericide. Xeroxing, bandaids and q-tips have gone down the same path. I mean, are you checking to make sure that your q-tip is a Unilever Q-Tip® Cotton Swab? Did you even know that those things can be called “cotton swabs”?
And no one remembers that “escalator” was originally a brand name. It was trademarked by the Otis Company, the original escalator-makers, at the turn of the 20th century. But in 1950 the US Patent Office actually killed the trademark, because “escalator” had so completely swamped the competition that nobody used any other word.
Which is all to the good, because “that Otis Escalator® Moving Stairway-ed quickly” would be a terrible meme.
The Language Nerd
*Unless your dad happens to be a weatherman. Then references to “clement weather” crop up more often Also crepuscular rays.
**For a couple of reasons. But most obviously the “catchy question” thing, right?
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This is hella basic semantics, like you could get from any intro textbook. My Ling 101 book was Language Files. That’s also where the “girl,” “hound/dog,” and “meat/food/flesh” examples came from. For “clement” and the like I used the magic of Etymonline.
Genericide, though, I learned about in forensic linguistics, which is the best. Forensic linguistics is anywhere language intersects with law, in this case trademark law. See, if “bandaid” is now a generic, regular word, can I start my own bandage-making company and call it “Official Language Nerd Bandaids (Super-Rad)”? I can try, but Johnson & Johnson are gonna be pissed, and we’ll end up in court hiring linguists to argue our cases.
Anyway, if you are interested in literally any aspect of forensic linguistics, from trademark law to interview coercion to legalese, no matter what catches your fancy, I guarantee that Roger Shuy has written a book about it. The man is a publishing machine.